Does Military Superiority Increase Public Support for Conflicts?
2019 American Democracy Fellowship
Realism traditionally teaches that the balance of power can help determine the likelihood of a military campaign's success. It therefore has an important influence on the decision to engage in a conflict. However, the same may not be true for non-conventional weapons. While existing literature has established a clear connection between conventional superiority and the likelihood of winning a war, this connection is more tenuous in the case of nuclear assets. Does an advantage in the nuclear balance of power translate to a higher likelihood of winning a conflict, as appears to be the case for conventional military technology? Some scholars have argued that states with more nuclear weapons than their opponents can act more aggressively or perform better in competitions of brinkmanship because they are able to inflict more damage on their opponents should nuclear war break out. On the other hand, many scholars have argued that a key distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons is that the nuclear balance of power is largely irrelevant. / / This deterrence-based logic would suggest that, regardless of the nuclear balance of power, the public would oppose nuclear conflict. This non-effect would be important, because it would suggest that small arsenals are just as useful as large arsenals for important strategic objectives such as making deterrent or compellent threats. This cuts away at the justification for large nuclear arsenals by suggesting how small, secure arsenals may serve a similar purpose. Indeed, for nuclear superiority to be strategic, it must be the case that individuals perceive nuclear superiority as providing a reliable way to win a nuclear war. The potential ineffectiveness of nuclear superiority in signaling military advantage could provide a partial explanation for the fact that the empirical connection between nuclear superiority and victory in crisis situations is quite tenuous. Moreover, in the absence of a reliable strategic advantage from nuclear superiority, states should have little reason to invest in nuclear assets whose purpose is simply to tip the balance of power in their favor. The current literature on military superiority offers few tests of how the balance of power might affect public attitudes about conflict. This paper will use an original survey experiment to determine when and why the balance of power---both in terms of nuclear and conventional weapons---affects public preferences on conflict.